Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7
On the last Sunday in Advent, we end where we began: with lament.
Psalm 80 offers a profound description of suffering, particularly the suffering of God’s apparent absence. This Psalm expresses our longing for God’s face to turn toward us rather than away, and to shine upon us with the light of grace.
The first two verses of this Psalm emphasize the power of God, especially the power of God to save God’s people. The image of God as a Shepherd here (verse 1a) is not that of the gentle Shepherd whom we associate with texts like Psalm 23, although certainly God’s care and protection are implied here. Coupled with other images and allusions in these verses, we see “Shepherd” operating here as a royal image; God guides and protects God’s people with the power of a monarch. Indeed, God is “enthroned upon the cherubim,” (verse 1b), referring most likely to God’s throne, formed by the wings of cherubim, on top of the Ark of the Covenant.
The call upon God to “shine forth” (verse 1b) is also a reference to the power — indeed the military might — of God (see Psalm 50:1-2 and 94:1). God is being called upon to show the full power of divine radiance and thus to defeat Israel’s enemies. The likely context for this Psalm is that of the Northern Kingdom after its fall to Assyria in 722 BCE. The Psalmist cries, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (verse 2b), with a desire for God to rain down vengeance upon the those who have consumed God’s people.
The plea to God to “let your face shine,” however, which is heard three times in this Psalm, has a different connotation. The desire expressed here is not for revenge, but for the very presence of God with God’s people. The familiar prayer from Numbers 6 makes this clear: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-26).
The Psalmist is crying out for God’s grace, God’s peace, and God’s love (see also Psalm 31:16) to be present there with the people in their distress. It is a plea for the restoration of relationship with God, who seems so distant from their suffering as to appear angry (verse 4). The intensification of this plea each time it is repeated (verses 7 and 19) demonstrates the Psalmist’s increasing anxiety at God’s distance from the people.
Rather than the bread of the presence (literally “bread of the face”), which held a sacred place in the tabernacle and the Temple, the people have been forced to consume only the bread of tears (verse 5). In their profound suffering, the people feel that God is absent, simply not there with them in their pain, and they long for God’s presence to be restored.
Beyond the scope of today’s appointed text but crucial for understanding the people’s desperation is the Psalmist’s portrayal of Israel as a vine. This is not an uncommon metaphor in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the Prophets (Isaiah 5:7 and 27:2-6; Jeremiah 2:21 and 12:10; Ezekiel 15:1-8; Hosea 10:1). In most uses of the metaphor the vine that is Israel has become useless, wild, producing only bad fruit. Here, however, the Psalmist uses the metaphor to demonstrate God’s loving care for God’s people, as well as to dramatize the destruction that their enemies have wrought upon them.
God brought this vine from its captivity in Egypt, and planted it in the place that God chose (verse 8). The vine, the people of Israel, took deep root in the land, and those roots spread, from mountain to river to sea (verses 10-11). God cared for the people of Israel and planted them in a place where they thrived.
But now, again, God’s care seems to have been removed. The walls protecting the vine have broken down, and the vine stands unprotected and vulnerable: its fruit has been plucked; the vine has been ravaged, fed upon, burned, and cut down (verses 12-16). This is a devastating portrayal of the people at their most desperate. They are bereft of all that was once theirs, of their stability and their strength, even of life (verse 18b).
Most horribly, they are bereft of God. God seems to have abandoned them to destruction, and that absence is the final affront. Their suffering is acute and seemingly endless; “How long?” the Psalmist cries in verse 4. This is a profound description of affliction, either individual or communal, and of how in human being’s deepest affliction the absence of God is heartrendingly real.
So many people suffer such affliction. So many have been laid waste by destruction, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, or some combination. And so many experience in that destruction the utter absence of God. Psalm 80 is the lament of scores of those outside our churches’ walls, and of scores of us sitting right in our churches’ pews. Thus it is a lament that the church must take up. All that is ravaged, fed upon, burned, and cut down in the world is crying out for the return of God’s presence, for God’s countenance to shine once more. The church sings this lament in solidarity with all who are afflicted, and tenderly points to the Incarnation.
“How long?” Not long now. God’s face will be here soon.